Fighting Gentrification in Leeds
The UK eviction ban has come to an end. As of the 31st May, hundreds of thousands of renters who have fallen into arrears due to loss of income now fear the further turmoil of losing their homes. Throughout the pandemic, despite the moratorium on enforcement action, eviction notices were still imposed. These evictions, forced through the backdoor in cases of high rent arrears and anti-social behaviour, affected the most vulnerable tenants. Tens of thousands of households were made homeless, whether through illegal eviction and harassment, or due to the precarious limbo of lodging, sofa surfing or temporary accommodation in which many are trapped.
Insecurity, exorbitant rents, and unsafe living conditions have blighted the lives of renters since long before the pandemic, however. Successive waves of privatisation have dismantled social housing and eroded the limited rights and protections private tenants had before the Thatcher years, exacerbating the deep power imbalances between landlords and tenants. The COVID crisis entrenched these fault lines, highlighting the urgency of demands for housing as a public health right, with many forced to isolate in homes choked by mould and overcrowding, or deprived of a stable home at all.
For the residents of Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive in Oulton, Leeds, the scars of Britain’s unjust, exploitative housing system are all-too familiar. Tenants there have waged a 3 years-long battle against gentrification and eviction. Their Airey homes were built by the National Coal Board to house miners in the post-war era, resulting in an area tied closely together by the tight-knit social bonds and kinship of mining communities. The history of trade union struggle and working-class solidarity still resonates through the estate. Indeed, many of the residents have lived there for decades, some are former miners themselves, others pensioners, families and public sector workers bearing the brunt of austerity, fighting to save their homes and livelihoods from the claws of profiteers.
In 2004, the estate was sold to investment company Pemberstone, another victim of the bouts of privatisation that have decimated social housing across the country. This process has plundered the collective resources and institutions erected by and for working class communities in the post-war period. In 2017 – after years of neglecting fundamental structural maintenance to the properties, perpetuating the ‘managed decline’ of working-class estates where living conditions are run into the ground to justify gentrification – Pemberstone began attempts to demolish the estate and supplant it with ‘executive housing’. This would price out and break apart a longstanding community, prising elderly and ill residents from their support networks, uprooting children from their schools and friendships, severing connections to local sports clubs and displacing residents who have supported and looked after one another for decades from the homes in which they are settled and love. A shadow of shock and dread eclipsed the estate as residents feared for their futures, waiting in the lurch for Pemberstone to cast them out, their community of no consequence to Pemberstone’s ruthless drive for profit.
But – despite Pemberstone’s rapacity – the residents have drawn on the community spirit that has long bound the families on the estate to bravely fight back against the development. Locals banded together in a Resident Action Group, engaging in community meetings with local councillors, petitioning and fundraising at local festivals, leisure centres and Constituency Labour Parties, raising the story of their plight in local and national media and publicly pressuring decision-makers on social media. They rallied and marched through Rothwell and joined up with trade unions at Mayday marches through Leeds city centre, forging alliances with local anti-austerity groups and tenant unions, and drawing strength and experience from similar housing campaigns which were saving estates across the country. The residents opened up their homes and participated in cultural heritage days with support from organisations like the Twentieth Century Society, which campaign to preserve 20th century architecture, weaving their own story into the rich fabric and legacy of the estate, highlighting the magnitude of inherited culture and history to rouse reserves of morale and inspire others behind their cause.
The estate was ablaze with banners and posters opposing the demolition, the whole community united against the Pemberstone plans, solidarity densely threaded together among those most affected to lead their own fight. In the first council planning panel meeting, the decision was deferred. Pemberstone themselves were woefully unprepared and fell back on contemptuous deceits about the residents being a ‘transient community’, with many local councillors still equivocating.
The campaigning pressure ramped up as the second planning meeting approached. Coordinated objections were submitted to the website en-masse and demonstrations outside and strong presences inside the meeting mustered; the precedent set by prior deputations to the council enabling maximal leverage of its institutional weight. Here, in a broad coalition, the resilience of traditional labour institutions such as the National Union of Mineworkers, the organic strength drawn from the residents’ ties to one another and the wider community, and the energy of social movements culminated in a key victory: the council’s planning panel decision to reject the application.
As such, the residents’ power and confidence as self-made activists fighting to defend their community burgeoned, asserting the right to determine the fate of their own homes over a system where tenants are treated as disposable because housing is commodified as an asset at the whim of the rich. In the council meeting itself, the chair of the Resident Action Group offered powerful testimony about the bonds between the residents and the impact eviction would have upon the community. They insisted on their dignity and humanity against not only Pemberstone’s greed, but the bureaucratic rituals etched in arcane committees and lopsided planning laws that dispossess working class people from decisions over their lives.
Unfortunately, despite this hard-won triumph for the residents, Pemberstone did not relent. They appealed further to the planning inspectorate, buying off the most prestigious solicitors and planning experts to skew the process in their favour. Despite the wearying toll of an already long struggle, the residents were determined to continue fighting, fundraising nearly £10,000 to afford proper legal representation and counsel in order to grapple with Pemberstone during the appeal. Despite their best efforts, however, bringing to bear arguments about the conservation of cultural heritage, community cohesion, and even equality duties and the human rights of children, the planning inspector ruled in favour of Pemberstone: a crushing blow to the residents.
This setback epitomizes how housing and planning law are stacked in favour of developers and landlords: because the law is not a neutral adjudicator between interlocutors on an equal footing, but a reflection of dominant power relations in which the hegemony of property owners is enshrined as a sacrosanct right. The grounds for Leeds City Council rejecting the planning application in the first place were related to the environmental effects of demolition given their recent declaration of a climate emergency, the rarity of the estate’s cultural heritage, and most importantly the impact on the community. But even there the ideological mystification of planning as a mechanistic, managerial process detached from political contestation or the interests of residents had to be dispelled, the hearing of community cohesion as a relevant detail pushed for by residents and socialist-inclined councillors against Pemberstone’s representatives and council officers.
Indeed, it was asserted again and again in the planning panels meetings that whether the application is rejected or approved Pemberstone can still issue Section 21 notices to all the residents anyway, with only a minority still retaining regulated tenancies. Even those who have lived there over a decade are on the now dominant mode of tenancy for private tenants, assured shorthold tenancies. This was explicitly raised as an overriding argument during the appeal, as if demolition were a foregone conclusion because the landlord has full power and impunity under the law to turf out tenants at will anyway.
The inherent political bias in planning law, veiled as an impartial, technocratic deliberation over facts of architecture and geography, is herein exposed: inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State for Housing and Communities chalking up their direct approval of the destruction of an estate to the constraints of no-fault eviction legislation. One wonders, then, at the toothless theatre to which local democratic decision-making is relegated, when local planning decisions can be so readily undermined and overruled by a central authority that cleaves to landlord power as an immutable fact. And beneath all this: a community demoralized and sleepless with worry about when the leaden weight of eviction notices will crash through the door, spelling the end of their lives amongst one another.
Where to go from here? The residents of Sugar Hill Close and Wordsworth Drive have persisted in platforming their story, recently participating in a documentary film by an independent Yorkshire production company. With residents suspended mid-air by zip wire, the film symbolises the now desperate struggle to hold on to their homes. They continue to confront Pemberstone through every channel available to them such as social media, with their offices remote in Whittington so as to further screen the company from any accountability. And the residents are challenging the council too, all too aware that just rejecting the application is not itself enough, but that local authorities have a responsibility to stand up rather than acquiesce to the power of property developers, in a context where revolving door patronage and obsequious complicity excused by arguments about funding cuts is all too common.
It is these demands to repurpose the estate that residents are lobbying for in meetings with the council which signify the fundamental structural changes needed within our housing system. The Save Our Homes campaign has continually highlighted the lack of affordable housing, meaning there would be no recourse for residents if they are evicted due to years-long waiting lists for council housing. This is not a problem contained to any one constituency. It is a fundamental feature of the marketisation and deregulation of housing, which cannot be resolved by piecemeal policy promises (the Tories having betrayed their pledge to end no-fault evictions repeatedly) but a real movement towards decommodification.
In this, the campaigning of community unions like ACORN will be instrumental alongside more localized housing struggles to defend affordable housing. Not just firefighting, but rebuilding the class power necessary from the ground up to confront the power of landlords and policy makers and reclaim control over our housing. The militancy and collective strength of renters is advancing everywhere against the rampant injustices in our housing system, winning repairs, stopping evictions, and challenging rent debt through direct action, demonstrating that the power of landlords is not insurmountable.
The residents in Oulton are at the coalface of the struggle of private renters everywhere; they will not stand alone in their conviction to resist eviction by whatever means necessary. There is a long, proud history of tenants taking the fight to landlords: to their country mansions, their companies, their letting agents, rising up for dignified living conditions and autonomy over our housing. It is these lessons renters are re-learning, and in this struggle is the possibility of a better world. Throughout the siege waged by Pemberstone, this solidarity, both intimate and far flung, caring for your neighbours as much as protesting in the streets, has been cause for hope. Just as the residents’ struggle against social cleansing is an example to the growing tenant movement across the country, now readying itself to battle the looming tsunami of COVID evictions, the whole movement must stand beside them in turn.
Luke Dukinfield is a freelancer, benefit and debt support worker and community organiser in Leeds. You can read more of their writing here: patreon.com/iridescence.
You can also find more about the LS26 Campaign here.